“In some of my past classes, it felt like I was doing science for science’s sake. But since I’ve been working with water for food, it really feels like I’m doing science that’s making a difference.”
William Avery is driving his dusty grey Chevy pickup down a hot gravel road in July, surrounded by cornfields. What looks like a stock image of rural Nebraska is actually a cosmic-ray neutron rover. Though its name sounds like a sci-fi gizmo, the rover is a down-to-earth device that measures soil moisture remotely, precisely and in real time. It has the potential to save farmers a lot of water and energy. To build off that potential, Avery and his adviser, Daugherty Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and University of Nebraska-Lincoln hydrogeophysicist Trenton Franz, are partnering with farmers interested in using the technology in their fields to conserve water.
In August 2014, the Water for Food Institute awarded its inaugural round of student support grants to faculty fellows. The grants provide stipends to students like Avery who are working on projects that contribute to a more water and food secure world. To Avery, a first-year graduate student in UNL’s School of Natural Resources, this means finding the signal in the soil-moisture data and communicating it to farmers. “If we can make it easier for a farmer to figure out how much water is in their ground, then we make it easier for them to decide when – and when not – to irrigate.”
Likewise, deciding when he can and when he can’t answer a question is one of the qualities Avery admires in Franz. “He understands that there’s a certain point where he cannot do everything for me and he has to let me have a little bit of self-discovery. But he also takes the time to point out what’s important to know and what isn’t.”